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Growing Up On Skates

By Maarten van Swaay

The Netherlands offers an opportunity found in few other places: much of the country can be reached and traversed on water. That invites barge traffic, and in earlier days public transport by ‘trekschuit’ – horse-drawn boat, and it is appealing for water sports in the summer and skating in the winter. One can sail for weeks, and skate for a day and more, without coming to any place twice. Along some of the smaller waterways one can still find a ‘jaagpad’ – tow path – that served as a trail for horses, or even men, to tow boats along the waterway. Such a waterway might also be called a ‘trekvaart’ – towing canal. On a much larger scale one can still find this mechanism in use in, e.g., the Panama Canal.

From our house in Scheveningen I could skate to school more than once. When winter weather allows it, barge traffic in Holland may sometimes be curtailed to allow canals to freeze smoothly, and skating tours are organized in many places. Those range from as little as 10 miles to maybe 60 miles, with the ‘Elf-Steden Tocht’ of 120 miles by far the most famous.

No surprise, then, that I grew up in intimate contact with water, as did our children later on.

Our oldest daughter Aagje made friends with skates well before she was old enough for kindergarten. Close by our house in Oegstgeest was a small pond where we would feed the ducks in summer, and where children would slide on the ice in winter. The Dutch have long used wooden skates; of course those do have steel blades, but they are mounted on a very simple wooden platform that can be strapped to almost any shoe. That makes them ideal for children: they are low on the ice, and can be used far longer than the shoes that children outgrow in months.

When Aagje got her first pair of skates she was still much attached to a doll, which she would take everywhere in a toy carriage. Just what she could use to venture out on the ice: the doll drew her attention, and the carriage gave some small but essential support. Off she went, walking her doll on the ice … As the oldest one, Aagje had no example to follow. But the others did. After watching Aagje conquer her fist scooter – with anxious help from running parents – Marianne one day just grabbed Aagje’s scooter and rode off on it. That is also how Marianne learned to skate.

Our two boys were not quite that lucky; by the time Hein was ready for skates we had moved to Aalst (NB), in a drier part of the country. Jouke was not yet one year old when we moved to Manhattan, KS.

Manhattan has two nice and tempting lakes nearby: Pottowatomy State Lake is sheltered and relatively small, and most years it would have enough ice to skate on. Much larger Tuttle Creek Lake is more challenging; its shape is open to winter’s North winds. But some of its coves would freeze up more often, in particular the Spillway Cove that was also home to the Blue Valley Yacht Club where we did our summer sailing. That Club has since moved across the lake to Tuttle Cove.

Aagje with au-pair Marleen Kwant Spillway Cove, winter 1964/5

When we arrived in Manhattan in 1963, Tuttle Creek Lake had just been completed, and the Army Corps of Engineers was much concerned about liability for accidents on the lake. For maybe as long as a decade, the local newspaper would have scare stories every winter about the dangers of ice on the lake. That may have been understandable: the Corps had little say over what one might do on the ice, but could well be exposed to claims from people who caused their own mishaps. State Lake appeared to escape those politics; I don’t recall stories about that lake.

Having grown up on water and on ice I felt at home on it; for many years I would explore the ice on State Lake, and when it had thickened to about three inches I would skate around to find and mark thin areas. After that came the fun of ice parties and miles of skating. The Frisian skates do not lend themselves to such things as ice hockey or ice dancing; they are designed for distance. One turn around State Lake would be about a mile, and we would often do more than a few of those in an afternoon. Dutch skates – all with wooden frames – come in several types, named by the region in which they are popular. Those from Friesland – the Frisian skates – have blades that resemble those of racing skates.

Skates do lose their edge; when they do, they are worse than a walk on ball bearings. In Holland, bicycle shops would sharpen skates, or at least claim that they could. But often it was a crude job that left the skates with a burr that caused a major drag. One would have to endure the agony of ‘skating the burr off’; it could take as long as a day.

With many pairs of skates to maintain I learned to sharpen them myself, and without leaving any burrs. Distance skates have to be almost straight, with only a slight curvature of not more than 1/32 inch over the length of the skate. And that curve has to be smooth: the skates must not ‘rattle’ when they are rocked against each other. When sharpened properly, they make strokes of 100 ft. and more possible.

The allure of intimate State Lake could not compete against the temptation of Tuttle Creek, with its 12-mile stretch of mile-wide ice. It would not be every year, but in the years Tuttle Creek froze and stayed free of snow, its ice was irresistible. Word of its glory spread, and pretty soon we started getting questions about Frisian skates. Over the years, we probably imported 50 or more pairs for our friends, often with requests to have them shipped by airmail. Eventually we had enough skates from our own needs to pass one pair to each of our 10 grandchildren, with several pairs left over. Admittedly, those are more likely to hang on a chimney than to glide on ice; our grandchildren did not grow up near water.

At the time, there were no cell phones, and no phone booths near the ice either. It took some cleverness to get to Tuttle Creek at one end, and arrange for pickup some hours later at the other end. Somehow, it always seemed to work. Making a round trip on ice was not so easy; it would entail a head wind for one leg. But I did it at least once, with our two boys, who cannot have been older than 10 at the time. One-way trips came more often, usually with a handful of friends who were curious about the experience, and ambitious to try. The experience is indeed impressive, especially in an area that has no waterways. Toward sundown the lake becomes awesome, not only for the gorgeous light, but for the booming of the ice. As the temperature falls, the ice begins to shrink, and the large expanse of a lake will force the ice to crack. Once such a crack forms, it may travel for a mile or more at very high speed, producing a boom as loud as heavy artillery, and reverberating over the surface of the ice. That may sound scary, but it reveals that the ice is strong and safe.

At Tuttle Creek the cracks tended to run across the lake, and we would have to cross them on a trip from dam to bridge. Not surprisingly, those cracks had a tendency to widen as their edges rubbed and crashed into each other.We would look for a place where the floes had refrozen together, and usually found such places without much trouble. But we did always carry a rescue rope, as well as repair parts for the skates. None of the children ever got even as much as a wet foot on a crack, but I did – once. It was a cold skate for a few miles to our pickup point… Our youngest son Jouke was with me at the time; he quite laconically noted that he ‘should find a better spot to cross’. And he did.

One winter we had a half-grown Labrador Retriever, and took him with us on the ice. Upwind he had no trouble keeping up with us, but downwind we outskated him. Rather than waiting for him I tried whether he would ride in my backpack. It must have made an interesting sight, with the face of 40 lbs of dog sticking out above my head. He did have the ride of his life, but made it quite clear that in his mind humans had no business walking on water. On later skating trips he usually chose to stay on shore; to show his disapproval he took my shoes and skate protectors off the ice on one occasion, and parked them underneath our car.

Well before the lake itself had enough ice, various coves would freeze thick enough to allow more casual parties. Spillway Cove with the docks of the yacht club was a popular place. We established a Dutch tradition there: pea soup on the ice. Farmers in Holland would often put up small wind shelters where they offered hot chocolate, hot aniseed milk, pea soup, and a traditional ‘gevulde koek’ – filled with almond paste – that they would peddle to skaters coming by. We set out to do something like it at Spillway Cove, with a large pot of pea soup that can almost be eaten with a fork. But access to the yacht club dock ran via a long set of stairs, awkward to negotiate – several times – with a kettle of soup and lots of other things to go with it. I drove our VW bus off the ramp and across the ice to the yacht club dock. Skaters scattered like rabbits from a coyote. But the smell of the soup brought them all back.

By the time Jouke had his 10th birthday our ambitions had grown, and we bought a house in Breckenridge, CO. With that, our ‘winter fix’ changed from skating to skiing. But after we sold that house some 25 years later we went back to skating, not as fanatically as before, but still with much pleasure and satisfaction, almost to the time when we moved to Village Shalom. I did give my skates away at that time.